15 Parenting Secrets for Raising Difficult Children on the Spectrum

“Is anyone else having a hard time coping with their autistic (high functioning) child? My son, Aiden, is almost 6, and he is very difficult to understand and reprimand. He has been diagnosed with ADHD too. I'm not sure about the ADHD ...I see him with more of "Oppositional Defiant Disorder" with a dash of autism. My husband has a bit of this same issue ...so he and Aiden have major trouble communicating. I’m stuck in the middle. The situation between my son and my husband, and my son and myself is extremely grueling and it is affecting our health and our marriage. Aiden’s older sister is affected as well. Of course we do love our son ....just can't figure out a way to reduce the enormous family stress we are all feeling now! Help!!”

Welcome to the club. Raising a youngster with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) or Asperger’s (AS) will take a few "tricks of the trade" that parents wouldn't need to have "up their sleeve" were they raising a "neurotypical" (i.e., non-autistic) son or daughter.

If you are at your “wits end” and need a few fresh parenting strategies in dealing with behavioral problems, then read on…

1. Don’t believe it when your HFA or AS youngster seems unaffected by discipline. Young people on the autism spectrum often pretend discipline doesn’t bother them. Parents must be persistent with their planned discipline, and consider themselves successful by keeping their “parenting plan” in place. When your son pretends a particular consequence doesn’t bother him, you may be tempted to give up on it, which reinforces his disobedience. Remember, moms and dads can only control their actions, not their youngster’s reactions.

2. Don’t just tell your son the correct way to do something – have him rehearse it too. For example, if he has a habit of slamming the kitchen cabinet after reaching for a snack, have him put the snack back in the cabinet and, this time, close it less forcefully. Then reward him with acknowledgement and praise.

3. Notice and appreciate even small instances of teamwork from your HFA child.  Create as many opportunities for positive reinforcement as possible. For instance, if you're working on a household chore, ask your son to hand you the dust rag. When he does what you ask, thank him specifically for his willingness to help out. If he doesn't, simply move on without comment. The goal here is to make your request so easy that he will comply without even thinking about it. Then, for just a second, he will experience the positive feelings associated with being compliant, which will make it more likely that he will comply with tougher requests in the future.

4. Become a “transition coach.” Most HFA and AS kids have difficulty with transitions (e.g., moving from one activity or location to the next). Thus, as your child’s personal coach, (1) discuss well in advance what is expected from him, and (2) have him repeat out loud the terms he just agreed to. Some children need to negotiate for that "can I please have one more minute?" A little extra patience on your part will help avoid a useless tantrum or meltdown.  

CLICK HERE for more information on helping with transitions. 

5. Many parents of “special needs” children are indecisive about what course of action to take. After all, many traditional parenting techniques backfire when used on autistic kids. Thus, the parent may jump from one parenting strategy to the next without giving any one strategy enough time to be successful. Or, the parent may try a new strategy once and then give up in frustration because it didn’t work. How many times have you said something like, “I’ve tried everything – and nothing works with this child”? So, don’t make the mistake of floating from one parenting tool to another without sticking with one specific tool for a significant period of time. If a particular tool only works 50% of the time, that’s the same as cutting a behavior problem in half (not bad!).

6. Actively look for opportunities to model humility. You probably already know that your son copies some of your behaviors and phrases you use often. So, why not use that to your advantage. When you are wrong, quickly admit this to him. This will demonstrate (a) making amends and (b) that it’s safe to make mistakes. Admitting your mistakes teaches your youngster to respect others. If you’ll do this techniques often, don’t be surprised to hear him sounding exactly like you someday soon (e.g., “I’m sorry mom. I know you told me to feed the cat, but I forgot”).

7. How many times have you said something to your child like, “There you go again – making a big mess.” This downloads in his brain as “I’m a messy person.” As a result, he will continue to be messy as if it were a prescribed behavior. But, you can use this phenomenon to your advantage by employing “reverse psychology.” For instance, “That’s not like you …you’re able to do much better than that.” This line works because your child will live up to – or down to – your expectations. Also, this phrase downloads in your child’s mind as “I am capable.”

8. Frequently use humor to deal with family stress. For instance, one mother of an Asperger’s child would always start singing MC Hammer’s hit song (one of her son’s favorites) entitled “U Can’t Touch This” whenever her son began to muster-up the energy for a tantrum. In many instances, this would throw him off course and short-circuit the tantrum.

9. Don’t fight every battle that comes down the pike – and NEVER try to fight multiple battles at once. HFA and AS kids don't readily comply, so the more requests you issue, the more the opportunities for them to get stuck. Divide the things you want your son to do into 3 classes: Class 1 includes a few mandatory rules, which are usually about safety (e.g., put on your seat belt, don’t hit your sister, no playing with matches, etc.). Class 2 includes issues in which you are willing to negotiate (e.g., a slightly later bed time). Class 3 includes rules that aren't worth causing an argument over (e.g., when your son complains moderately about having to do a chore, yet he complies).

10. When it comes to getting your child to do chores, consider the "hiring a substitute" technique. He can choose to hire someone to do his chore (e.g., by paying a wage of 50 cents he has saved from an allowance), or mutually agree to trade chores with his sister.

When it comes to getting your child to do homework, CLICK HERE for some very crucial suggestions. 

11. Understand that the same discipline may not work in all situations because of the unique features of HFA and AS. For example, your child may be having a particularly bad day, and may have a tantrum or meltdown when a privilege is taken away for misbehavior, whereas on a typical day he may respond well. Also, try to blend a combination of several parenting tools to create a more effective discipline.

12. Always remember that HFA and AS children need – and want – structure. In many cases, these children are actually starved for structure, because it helps them feel safe. Having a clear understanding of “the rules of the game” (i.e., what is - and is not - acceptable behavior, the rewards for proper behavior, and the consequences for misbehavior) circumvents confusion and frustration. Write these rules down and post them. In addition, remember that rules have no value for kids on the spectrum unless they are backed up by immediate, yet short-term consequences.

13. One of the worst things you can say to your HFA son is, "If you do that one more time, you’re going to _______ (insert consequence)." He may be irresistibly drawn to do just that, either because you've set an impulse in motion, because he can't deal with the stress of waiting for the other shoe to drop, or because he gets stuck on what you've just said. Instead of specifying “one more time,” say something such as, "I have a number of times in my head, and you're not going to know what that number is. But, when you hit that number, you going to get a consequence." This gives your child a few extra chances if he seems to be trying without going back on a threat, and it gives him a little leeway to know that he can slip-up a time or two.

14. Social stories are great for helping HFA and AS children with their inherent social skills deficits. Because one of the traits of the disorder is the inability to interact normally in social situations, social stories can be employed in a variety of ways in order to model appropriate behavior. Through the use of engaging stories, these young people can learn appropriate and inappropriate responses to situations. The story should be specifically tailored to the individual youngster. By modeling situations familiar to your son, he can be better prepared to react in a socially appropriate way to those same situations in the future.

Social stories typically have 3 clear-cut ways of addressing a particular situation: The first describes who, what, where and why in relation to the situation. The second is a “perspective sentence” that explains how others react to the situation being discussed. And, the third sentence attempts to model an appropriate response. Social stories can be accompanied by music and pictures. Also, rewards can be used when a situation is properly addressed.  

CLICK HERE for more information on how to create social stories.

15. When it comes to dealing with your son’s meltdowns, think of him as a train with an “anxiety speedometer.” When that speedometer reaches 80 mph, it’s going to take a long long time to stop that train. Your goal is to keep him from coming anywhere close to 80 mph. Let’s say, for example, you enter the room when your son is at an anxiety level of 55 mph. The stress of a current situation is getting to him. In this case, you will want to slow that train down before it gathers momentum. Laugh, divert, distract, negotiate, or anything else you can think of – and the speedometer should come down to 30 mph (assuming you have skillfully camouflaged your intervention).  

CLICK HERE for more information on dealing with tantrums and meltdowns.

Parents of kids with HFA and AS face many problems that other parents don’t. These “special needs” young people are emotionally more immature than their “typical” peers. They may be indifferent - or even hostile - to their parents’ concerns. They often get punished for “misbehavior” when the behavior in question was really related to sensory sensitivities (or some other autism-related trait) that are out of their control. However, by implementing some of the ideas listed above, moms and dads can reduce – and in many cases, eliminate – many of the severe behavioral problems that exist today.

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